Feds Dump Cash Into ‘Hot Gulag’ Immigrant Detention Center

Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images

As a logistical and political dilemma looms on the southern border, the Biden administration is plunging hundreds of millions of dollars into a long-distressed Texas immigrant detention facility—and, in turn, handing over a huge pay day to a contractor with a history of alleged abuses against and staff.

Port Isabel Detention Center spans more than 375 acres in the lower Rio Grande Valley, about an hour’s drive north of downtown Matamorros, Mexico. Visitors have described the coastal area as among the most remote in the Lone Star Statea place where birds from the places— Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are a more frequent sight on the road than cars.

But instead of secluded serenity, a dark history hangs over Port Isabel—as well as over Akima, the controversial company set to assume day-to-day operations of the detention center.

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In 1989, amid an influx of refugees from Central America, the state’s Catholic bishops labeled it “the largest concentration camp on US soil since the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

It’s the place Robert Kahn, a journalist and former immigration legal assistant, called “the hot gulag” in his memoir of the ’80s migrant wave, Other People’s Blood, recounting how guards beats detains, sexually harased children, and subjected inmates to regular strip searches and months-long bouts of solitary confinement. It’s the site where—in 2009, 2010, 2018 and 2020—inmates went on hunger strikes to protest everything from lack of access to medical and legal services to physical abuse and, most recently, a rapidly expanding COVID-19 cluster.

“Instead of isolating everybody and having social distancing, they would trap people in their dorms,” ​​Norma Herrera, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, recalled to The Daily Beast. “It was so crowded the men would tell me if they extended their arm out while they were sleeping they would bump against somebody.”

The Port Isabel Detention center is also the complex where ICE held a 17-year-old for four months in 2017, despite laws forbidding housing juveniles with adults. It’s where the agency confined a 72-year-old grandfather with Alzheimer’s for nine months barely a year later. And it’s where, in 2018—at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy”—ICE imprisoned parents separated from their children. Staff reportedly told Central American mothers they should withdraw their asylums petition if they wanted to see their kids.

Now, the Port Isabel Detention Center is where the Biden administration, staring down a potential migrant surge as seasons change and Trump-era border restrictions are scheduled to lapse, is preparing to sink enormous sums—with much of the money flowing to a contractor who has a record almost as rife with disturbing advice as the facility itself.

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As the midterm elections near, Biden’s record on immigration has drawn fire from the right and left alike. An influx of migrants—and the very public controversies surrounding migrant detention—could further democrat unity and hopes in an already harrowing season.

ICE, which both owns Port Isabel and manages its contracts, has sought bids on eight projects to enhance the installation’s physical plant since March, far outstripping any other facility in the nation. It did not answer questions from The Daily Beast.

“We have noticed a flurry of solicitations on the federal procurement site pointing towards a potential renewal of detention, food, and transportation services as well as the intent to carry on with several maintenance projects and other physical updates to the facility,” noted Liz Castillo of the nonprofit Detention Watch Network.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images</div>
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Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images

The improvements appear aligned with a plan the Department of Homeland Security signed off on in early 2019 to replace or rehabilitate defective structures on-site, including the “inadequately sized” secure housing space. At the time, the department’s filings noted, Port Isabel was every day pressing against its maximum capacity of 1,200 deferred.

But according to data maintained by Syracuse University, the average daily population has since fallen to less than half that. Advocates worry the federal government’s actions are a prelude to an increase in incarceration as Title 42—a Trump era policy that allowed for expedited removal of asylum seekers on pandemic-related grounds—is set to expire near the end of the month.

“It does seem like they are preparing and ramping up to house people there,” said Herrera of the ACLU Texas.

The biggest deal to date has gone to the Akima company: a one-year, $191.9 million arrangement to furnish the facility with food, guards, and transportation.

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Like Port Isabel’s previous operator—and like many border security and immigrant detention contractors—Akima is an Alaska Native Corporation, part of a constellation of holding companies the federal government established in 1971 to compensate indigenous communities for lands lost in the shambolic statehood process. The firm did not respond to repeated outreach from The Daily Beast.

But judging by the history of complaints against Akima, its history is fraught with complaints.

There are eight pending federal lawsuits against the firm, including claims from workers of overtime theft, wrong termination, professional retaliation, and age and medical discrimination. Last March, the Department of Labor killed slapped one of the company’s affiliates with $21,000 in fines after an an employee at one of its accident Colorado managed sites..

The company’s employment practices came under scrutiny in 2017, when it laid off a marketing analyst photographed giving the finger to then-President Donald Trump’s motorcade. The analyst, Juli Briskman, lost a wrongful termination suit but won a severance claim.

The stories from those interned at Akima-run facilities are less politically titillating, but far more visceral.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images</div>
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Jose Cabezas/AFP via Getty Images

In late 2020, Alejandro Mugaburu, a detainee at an Akima complex in Florida, lodged a lawsuit accusing the company of denying him medications for his epilepsy and cardiovascular conditions. The suit further asserts that the facility placed him in a second-story bed, in violation of policy guidelines—culminating in a seizure that sent him down a flight of 14 stairs and landed him in a wheelchair.

In court, Akima has maintained that, as a private contractor, it is immune to such a lawsuit. It also maintains that Mugaburu failed to prove he had exhausted such “administrative remedies” as issuing a formal complaint to ICE.

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Mugaburu’s attorney, Eduardo Ayala, was hesitant to answer what he deemed “political” questions about ICE’s contracting practices. But he is nonetheless registered dismay at the agency’s continued business with Akima.

“I can tell you my opinion of Akima is not good,” the lawyer said. “And it’s definitely not an entity I would be comfortable giving the care of immigrants.”

This is far from the only story of reported mistreatment at Akima’s Sunshine State operations. In October of last year, a coalition of activist groups filed a formal civil complaint on behalf of a group of West Indian and African migrants who alleged a lack of COVID-19 protocols, inadequate medical care, and sexual touching by guards.

“An officer has died of COVID-19 and another officer is in critical condition on a ventilator,” the complaint says, quoting a testimonial submitted via an anonymous hotline. “I am currently in a pod where a lot of people are infected with COVID-19 and spreading it rapidly to other people. We are not able to social distance, we have masks but they haven’t been cleaned and we’ve had them for weeks. There is also no proper sanitation either.”

Muslim at two separate Akima ICE installations accused staff of serving them expired meals, gave them food from the garbage, or encouraged them to eat pork during the holy month of Ramadan.

One of those facilities, in western New York, got hit with a lawsuit in 2020 for allegedly exploiting the labor of detainees in conditions one plaintiff described as “bordering on slavery.” The complaint described how performing kitchen and janitorial work at the center but, instead of wages, received only $1 in daily credits for the commissary—where the told outlets that food from the vending machine regularly ran for more than $5 and deodorant cost $10. In its answer, Akima maintained the accusers were never legally its employees, and thus were not entitled to any minimum wage.

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The same facility has also come under fire for its COVID-19 policies, as well as for placing mentally ill decision in extended solitary confinement.

Advocates argued that detention facilities such as Port Isabel and others under Akima’s management are not only historically inhumane—they’re also a raw deal for taxpayers.

The federal government could save enormous amounts of money, they say, by placing asylum seekers who pass background checks with financially supportive family members in the US and investing instead in the infamously congested adjudication system, so as to more efficient process claims.

“It really brings into question when the federal government says they have limited resources or limited capacity to address immigration through a more humanitarian lens, when we see a $190 million contract going to just one facility,” said Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s really disgusting to see how much money is going into this, to be honest.”

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